Feds asking ski areas for pine-beetle help | VailDaily.com

Feds asking ski areas for pine-beetle help

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
Vail Daily file photo | Kristin AndersonA Vail Fire Department worker cuts down a pine-beetle-infested tree in 2008. The Forest Service and local ski areas have been working on a plan that would include cutting dead and dying trees at Vail and Beaver Creek over the next decade.

The threat to watersheds from fire-prone dying forests is growing so severe that federal forest managers are seeking help from water utilities, ski resorts and others in ravaged Western states.

“The federal government doesn’t have enough resources to deal with this,” said Harris Sherman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment.

But enlisting the likes of Denver Water to fund the removal of beetle-killed trees may be difficult because utilities probably would have to raise rates for customers.

The problem is erosion of sediment, which clogs water-supply reservoirs and delivery systems as it did after the 2002 Hayman wildfire southwest of Denver. Today, with more than 17 million acres of national forest killed by the beetle epidemic (3.5 million acres in Colorado), authorities are bracing for fires that could cause more erosion in watersheds.

The Forest Service already is spending about $1 billion a year to clear and treat beetle-ravaged forests. The total cost of treating forests “is in the billions of dollars,” Sherman said.

Denver Water officials are weighing the federal appeal, including the concept of a surcharge.

“It’s in our self-interest,” said Penfield Tate, president of Denver’s Board of Water Commissioners. “It will be far more cost-effective to manage the watershed than it would be to wait for another forest fire to occur.”

No one is committed to charging water users more, he said, “but we recognize we already have a cost we incur, and it would probably be better spent avoiding the damage rather than paying for the cleanup after the damage.”

Dealing with erosion from the Hayman fire is expected to top $41 million. Denver Water contractors still toil at dredging reservoirs and clearing pipes.

Santa Fe water providers were among the first to raise rates to fund forest work – $3 to $5 more annually for each household to raise $1.3 million over five years. This funds “ecosystem services,” done by federal foresters, thinning forests that had grown too thick. State funding enabled a temporary postponement so that bills have not yet increased, said Dale Lyons, Santa Fe’s water-resource projects coordinator.

“Now, our risk is low,” Lyons said, “but in order to keep it low, you have to keep doing forest maintenance.”

The forest crews clear standing dead trees and cut up fallen trees, positioning them across slumping slopes to act as erosion barriers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has declared protection of water supplies a top national priority. Water sources originating on national-forest land – 193 million acres countrywide – supply drinking water for an estimated 60 million Americans.

Now Sherman, formerly the director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, is making the pitch nationwide.

He addressed ski-industry leaders Monday at a National Ski Areas Association conference in Florida. Some resorts, such as Vail, already support efforts to plant trees and grasses to stabilize damaged forests.

Sherman also addressed attorneys general from Western states last week in Colorado Springs, warning that the emerging threat to water supplies is “very, very serious.”

“Obviously, climate change is a factor here,” he told them, and “because of warmer winters, we are seeing epidemic growth of (insect) species.”

Federal officials are launching “a concerted effort” to enlist water providers, electric utilities and others, he said. “It’s a massive problem. We need to protect our resources.”

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or bfinley@denverpost.com

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